Sunday, February 27, 2011

Strip the Streets

After being disappointed in We Day, it was a delight to participate in Strip the Streets this weekend.  A couple hundred students from 14 schools got together to raise awareness and some funds for several groups that help local homelessness.  (I think it's okay to put this photo here since its from The Record.)

There were excellent speakers, a meal at the legion, then a night outside.  I like that the schools were mixed together to talk about different issues.  It's an event that actually develops community along with awareness.  But what had the most impact was breakfast the next morning.

We went to First United Church where many people without homes spent the night sleeping in the basement.  Students shared porridge and toast with people who live like this every day.  Many of the students were moved to tears.

As I stood on the sidewalk, away from the rest, getting a panorama shot of people taking down tents in the morning, someone in a car slowed down to yell, "You guys are dressed too well to be homeless!!"   I didn't share that with the others, and it completely missed the point anyway.  The event raised money, collected tons of toiletries and other essentials, and completely transformed the participants.  The students weren't pretending to be without homes; they were getting a small taste of what it must be like for many people, including about 1,000 youth in the region, to have to go without something we take for granted.  It was an eye-opener, and I found it to be profoundly effective.

ETA - A student today commented on the evening.  She thought the worst part would be suffering through a cold night, but what was far worse was a total lack of privacy 24/7.  It's degrading to not be able to get yourself presentable in the morning without seeing other people in the mall washroom.  We have a need for private space that can't be helped with temporary group sleeping areas.

My weekend was topped off with an excellent drama presentation last night - excellent except for the silly bandz that we've decided to give away at every event.  My 6-year-old was thrilled.  Me?  Not so much.  They're made of a silicone rubber polymer which in itself isn't particularly toxic or problematic.  Careful of choking if you try to eat them, or cutting off your circulation if you wear them.  But it's trendy crap that's destined for the landfill where they won't decompose.  They might, however, photodegrade so in a few years we can breathe in the particles and decrease our fertility.

This is where environmentalists are total downers, but, I think, necessarily so.  I was excited to see the play without the toys that came with the ticket.  It doesn't make our school suddenly cooler to jump on a marketing trend.  It just makes more garbage to clean up at the end of the night.  

The weekend as a whole reminded me of a line in the film No Impact Man.  Colin's talking to an old hippie gardener who tells him:  "It's always 50/50.  Some thing get better and some things get worse.  It'll always be like that."

True that.  We just need those little bits of "better" to keep us going over the worse.
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Monday, February 21, 2011

Me2We Day

I appreciate the excitement many felt at We Day Waterloo, but I have a few concerns.  I considered sending this to The Record to balance out Carragh Erhardt's glowing editorial, but I decided otherwise.  Here's good enough.

If a rally is going to change how we live it has to do more than shout homilies at us. It has to model how to be. In this respect We Day failed. In words it told us to change the world, but in actions it told us to be wasteful consumers.

If these kids are our future, it’s a problem that so many bought bottled water. A few students told me it’s all they had for sale. This begs a question that I didn’t have the heart to ask: Why didn’t each of these “ambassadors of the future” bring a reusable bottle full of water? Thousands of water bottles were purchased in those four hours that made up the day.  As we listened to tales of women who had to miss school to walk hours for water, so many felt they couldn't make it for four hours without.

People like Al Gore were flown in to talk for less than ten minutes, then flown home again. A live video feed could have been as useful, and people would still have come for that, especially if it meant reducing GHGs. The “pumpers” made everyone stand up for most of the day, so we couldn’t see most of the speakers on the stage anyway, we had to watch on screens close to the ceiling.

They encouraged kids to buy t-shirts and jewelry and books as souvenirs of the day.  Right after the lunch break, some students spent a few entire speeches playing with their new purchases.  If you need a new shirt or necklace, then by all means, this is the place to get it where it's made or designed by hand and traded freely.  But do you really need more stuff?  We've trained our kids to want mementoes of everything they do, but it's just another consumerist scam under the cloak of charity.

Then we left the building to find, in the parking lot, 100 buses idling for over 45 minutes as kids got on to go home. They had to sit until every last person boarded a bus. It’s kind that they made the buses warm for us, but I think we can tolerate the cold for the sake of the planet. If we want to change behaviours, we can start by telling kids and the bus lines that it’ll be cold waiting in the bus, but we can handle it!  We just spent half a day listening to real hardships.  It's pathetic that we expect water on demand and a warm bus to wait in.

I’ve seen Craig Keilburger before without the flashing lights and pumpers and shouting. He is truly an inspirational speaker able to hold an audience for hours, right up there with David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis. The stories are the inspiration; if they only have an hour’s worth of stories, then make it an hour-long presentation. But why not have speakers tell their whole story instead of just teasers. There were little kids in the audience too, and some people think they need lots of variety to maintain their interest. But that belief actually creates a dwindling attention span.  Caught early, little kids love a good story told well. Everyone does.  We can foster that instead of expecting people to fall asleep if their attention is sustained by a single voice for more than ten minutes.

Dancing and chanting energize people so they think something important’s happening, that some connection has been made between all these strangers, but it doesn’t last. It’s fun and exciting for some, but doesn’t have the power to sustain us in a struggle to keep fighting the good fight. It certainly didn’t get kids to question their “XCI is the best school ever!” signs they held aloft right to the very end – ironic at an event that works to get us to shift our focus from a “me” to a “we”.

The day was frustrating because it’s so close. They’ve got the bodies and the interest, but too many words instead of actions of substance. They could cut out some time spent on dancing and have students do some good. Make people talk in small groups and pledge specific acts right there and then to be started before June, and have them submit them to a website co-ordinator so their promises are made public and they're held accountable.  Have schools sitting next to each other shake hands and say hello. Get names and make some new Facebook connections that can be counted on to join us for our next school event. Have people change their signs to “The world is the best school ever!”  And challenge students that didn't bring water with them to go the whole time without, to actually feel what it is to be thirsty and unable to get water, rather than fill our landfills and oceans with more plastic.

It was a pep rally that got everyone riled up, but a stunning waste of resources unless every one of the 6,000 in the audience actually starts to think globally with every action all the time - and they couldn't do it for a day.
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